Leadership is who you are, not what you do

THERE are few things I dislike more than 'role-play'.

I managed to talk my way out of it at a two day course last week, honestly telling the facilitator that any kind of role-playing made me queasy and I would make better use of the time writing something down.

He agreed, thankfully, but one of my fellow MBA students had a warning. "Are you doing Leadership next?" he asked? "With Lester Levy? Watch out. He loves role play and it's pretty confronting."

So I approached my first Saturday leadership session with more than a little trepidation. Dr Lester Levy, chair of numerous government and corporate boards and chief executive of the acclaimed New Zealand Leadership Institute, is an intimidating intellect, known for his unconventional thinking and business problem solving.

He speaks softly into a lapel microphone in his native South African accent and, in our first four hours with him last week, threw big ideas around like confetti.

"Perseverance and determination in leadership is another form of genius."

"It is more important to strengthen who you are than what you do."

"No one can motivate anyone else. But you can demotivate people endlessly."

The kind of leadership Dr Levy is talking about reaches far beyond trendy catchall phrases such as "vision" and "values". That, he says, is simply "hyperculture" - a caricature or exaggerated form of corporate culture which speaks confidently in slogans but has little to do with practice.

Organisations and business problems are more messy and complex than popular leadership statements allow for.

Real leadership, he says, is about dealing with paradox; about continuing to look for the problems and keeping possibility open for as long as possible. Managers, he says, look for feasibility and acceptability, seek proven solutions to known problems. Leadership is about uncertain problems and novel solutions.

There is an enormous body of academic research into leadership and no accepted definition of what it is. We have 10 weeks to get to grips with some small aspects of it, and to challenge ourselves on whether we are motivated to be real leaders, or just excellent followers.

That's where that first role-play came in.

Volunteers were called for. I was ready - avoided eye contact, pretended to be busy with something on my computer. Thankfully two hands went up. One was cast as a new CEO, walking the floor of his company in the first week, enjoying the meet-and-greet honeymoon. The other student volunteer portrayed a lowly worker, one who demanded a meeting with the new boss, alone together in a small room.

Their chairs facing, knees touching, the employee demanded of his new boss: "Why should I be led by you?"

We'd just spent hours debunking the usual skills and capabilities answers most of us would have given. We quickly ascertained that replying with a question or seeking more information from the questioner would simply annoy the worker.

"But why should I be led by you," he asked each time the "boss" tried to reply with honesty and sincerity, but stumbled inevitably into the usual vision and values trap.

It's a question we all must have an answer to, said Dr Levy, after 15 excruciating minutes of no one knowing what the right answer was.

I don't think he's going to tell us, but I think it has more to do with who you are than what you can do.

"Leadership is a skin you live in," he'd said, before an explanation of the Latin origins of the word integrity, which comes from integer - being whole or complete.

It's also about not following the rules. I'm hoping that extends to opting out of role-play.

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